- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

Digital empowerment

When most people think about the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society, they think of technology, not democracy.

But Nitan Desai, a recently retired U.N. diplomat who’s last official act will be to preside over the two-part conference, says the point is not the hardware but what governments and people can do with it.

“By making governments more open and more transparent, it can only help empower people, improve core aspects of society,” he said.

When Mr. Desai thinks about the Internet, he sees a vast transcontinental conversation where farmers can swap tips on rainwater recycling and rural hospitals can access the latest information about the oldest afflictions.

Perhaps more important, he said, is that the Internet has already unleashed an information revolution that will rival the printing press as a force for empowerment, inclusiveness and entrepreneurship.

In the Philippines, people used the text-messaging system on mobile phones to thwart a coup. The land-mines treaty gained strength largely because activists connected across the Internet. And Salam Pax, the “blogger of Baghdad” (dearraed.blogspot.com), continues to send his impressions and aspirations into the world via an electronic message in a bottle.

“People don’t just benefit from accessing information, but by contributing to it,” Mr. Desai said in a weekend interview.

“My argument is that this technology, more than any other, really has the capacity for sharing information. Unlike radio or TV, it is uniquely two-way. This is something we have not fully grasped yet — what implications it will have for our politics, our society, our economy.”

He acknowledges that repressive governments have tried to keep the Internet out of the hands of citizens, or restrict the sites they view. But he appears untroubled by it.

“Even with a repressive government, the citizens won’t be any worse off with the Internet,” Mr. Desai said. “This is far more difficult to manage centrally than traditional information sources. And they will have to make their case against a true freedom of expression. At this summit, they will have to put their markers down.”

At least 50 world leaders have already agreed to attend the Dec. 10-12 Geneva conference, although the United States has not. Mr. Desai hopes Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will attend.

Working-level diplomats are to meet this week in Geneva, starting today, to negotiate agreements on the following issues and others:

• How to pay for wiring and training the poorest nations.

• How to balance freedom of expression with pornography, hate sites and relentless advertising.

• Who should make core decisions about Internet systems and domain names.

Changing coordinators

Terje Roed Larsen, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, will be leaving next year to head the International Peace Academy.

Mr. Roed Larsen, a former deputy foreign minister of Norway, will take over leadership of the private think-tank from David Malone, who is returning to the Canadian foreign service next autumn.

“He’s a great choice for IPA,” said Mr. Malone, who is excited about returning home. “He has lots of experience in the think-tank world, and an incredible Rolodex from his role in the Mideast and the Quartet. He’s a former Cabinet minister, and that brings with it a lot of clout.”

For Mr. Roed Larsen, it’s a departure from a world hot spot.

The Israel-Palestinian “road map” to peace seems to have reached a dead end. The Oslo accord that Mr. Roed Larsen helped fashion exists now as a shadow rather than a tangible goal.

Worse, the envoy himself has been named persona non grata by the Israeli government since his emotional tour of Jenin, the Palestinian refugee camp partly destroyed by Israeli troops two years ago. Without access to the dominant power in the region, Mr. Roed Larsen’s power is minimal, U.N. officials say.

Pending board approval, Mr. Roed Larsen will take up his new duties at the IPA in January 2005.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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